In August 1935, at age 22, Alice Carlotta Jackson became the first African American to apply to the all-white University of Virginia. Small numbers of women had been admitted into the graduate and professional schools in earlier years, so the issue was her race rather than her gender. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, states could segregate by race so long as they provided "equal" facilities for blacks and whites. Since none of the black colleges and universities in Virginia offered a master's degree program in French, an African-American citizen of Virginia who wanted to pursue an advanced degree in that field would have to attend an out-of-state school.
Jackson, a Richmond native, completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Virginia Union University in Richmond and had taken some additional courses at Smith College in Massachusetts. Her application to the U.Va. graduate school for an MA in French was denied by the Board of Visitors on the basis of state's Jim Crow educational policies and "other good and sufficient reasons."
Jackson was part of a bigger movement at the time, coordinated by the NAACP, that sought to force Southern states to provide equal access to public higher education for black students. At the recommendation of the NAACP, she sent a letter asking the university to "enumerate" the other reasons for her rejection. [DOCUMENT #2] The Board of Visitors refused to elaborate on its decision, perhaps because it did not want to cloud the legal issue of racial segregation with other merit-based considerations.
One voice from within the University community, The National Students League, protested the Board's action "because it implies the desirability of continuing educational inequality." A small (not over 20 members) but vocal Communist student organization, the NSL wrote a highly publicized letter to the BOV and President John Newcomb condemning their actions and also held a public forum for the students to discuss this controversial issue. [DOCUMENT #3] Coverage of the protest in national newspapers, such as The New York Times, brought more attention to the case and pressure on the Board. President Newcomb also received half a dozen similar letters from other NSL University branches.
The case resulted in passionate public arguments on a range of issues. Many white Virginia newspapers criticized Jackson and the NAACP for damaging race relations and "unnecessarily rocking the boat." But these complaints were met with strong rebuttals from the NAACP Chief Counsel Charles Hamilton Houston, who wrote: "Amicable race relations are pleasant but must not be purchased at the price of fundamental rights." [DOCUMENT #4 ]
Additionally, some Virginians argued that the NAACP was focusing on the "wrong target" by fighting for a small elite group of African Americans, and should instead fight for the equality of black public school education at lower levels. By bringing attention to the inadequacies of the black public schools, many of these editorials inadvertently jump-started a movement to "equalize" segregated school facilities. For some critics, the notion of a black woman enrolling at a white institution raised the specter of the "mixing of the races." [DOCUMENT #5] But civil rights advocates dismissed this claim as a tactic to stir up an emotionally-charged issue and side-step the actual issue of equality in public schools.
Though the NAACP eventually decided not to press the Jackson case in court, the threat of such a case led to direct state action to provide African-American citizens with access to separate-but-equal higher education facilities. In December 1935, the Virginia State Board of Education established a graduate school for African Americans at Virginia State University at Petersburg. [DOCUMENT #6] And in February 1936 the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 470, the Dovell Act, which paid qualified black applicants the additional amount of tuition and travel expenses required to attend schools outside the state offering a similar course of study. This bill provided for the education of hundreds of African American students over the next twenty to thirty years.
Alice Jackson took her grant money from the new Scholarship bill and attended Columbia University, graduating with an M.A. in English in 1937. Unable to obtain any teaching positions in the state of Virginia because of the notoriety associated with her application, she taught at a college in Florida for 45 years, and then at Howard University for some time. Yet, despite the repercussions of her challenge to U.Va.'s segregation policies, she remained committed to what she called "the fight for equal educational opportunities for Negroes in the South." It was not until the 1980s that the University of Virginia and current African-American students honored her. In 1990 the Virginia General Assembly honored her with a resolution commending her courageous act in the 1930s. Alice Jackson Stuart passed away on June 13, 2001, aged 88. [Obituary, Richmond Times-Dispatch] She was a pioneer in her day and took the first step on a very long and painful path to the desegregation of the University of Virginia.
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